Sunday, October 30, 2011

There are no words - Love of the Nightgale

There are no words.

Seriously, there are no words. Just like the Thracian women repeatedly tell both Procne, and later Philomele, there are no words, to describe how a new theatrical piece invokes responses in you, and to try to describe the performance, there are no words to adequately describe what you have seen. And yet, we must. We must get out the truths of what we have seen and ensure that others want to see them also.

For those that have missed the whole "Love of the Nightingale" story and are wondering what I am talking about, OperaAustralia have just mounted the glorious Richard Mills opera, based on the story by Ovid in his Metamorphoses concerning the sisters Procne and Philomele and the Thracian king Tereus, whom Procne marries, and who then, while collecting Philomele to bring her to spend time in Thrace with her sister Procne, rapes and brutalises her.

That is the basics of the story. And, I will be honest, it does sound like a pretty grim night at the opera. Modern opera, based on a bloodthirsty tale of outrageous behaviour. And yes, it does live up to being a confronting night of theatre. Seeing someone have their tongue cut out is pretty gruesome, even if you know that it is not real. Especially when it is presented in such a way that you imagine it more than you see it.

But this is also a production with a lot of humour. I frequently was laughing out loud in the first act, which I was not expecting. Granted there was less humour in the second act, but then the plot does turn very ugly, so that was no surprise.

And, with the humour and the vivid characterisations, you did care about these characters. Most of them in fact, although I do not recommend getting to attached to lead tenor roles in this opera.

As the sisters, Emma Matthews and Anke Hoeppner have the sort of roles that singers dream about. And, fill them well they do. Emma is probably the finest singer we have in Australia at the moment, and once again, she showed us why. Her sweet coloratura filled the theatre throughout the night, with no risk of being overwhelmed, and always in control. Now, granted, this is her second time singing this role (she created the role in its first production) but this is one of those cases of a role that seem a gift to the singer. In fact, I am pretty sure that Richard Mills wrote the role around her originally. What a gift for her!

Anke was something of a surprise for me. I admit, the times before I have heard her, I have been underwhelmed. I would never have thought of her voice as beautiful. Powerful yes, but a tendency to be wayward, and harsh, not one I would rush off to hear again. As Procne, she held her own, as Philomele's older, though not wiser, sister, who marries the brutish Tereus. She left me realising that I need to reconsider her as a singer to investigate further, as she never fell into Emma's shadow, despite being on stage together for a large chunk of her role. I guess this is what happens when you only know performers from recorded performances.

As Tereus, Richard Anderson was the hulking brute he needed to be. He was the sort of man you could believe would do the things he did, if he did not get his own way. His voice was similar, powerful and intimidating, if not making beautiful sounds. This was of course, more a reflection on the music and the character he was portraying, rather than any lack on his part. He remains a singer I often wonder why he does not get better roles that show off his voice, but then maybe this is his choice too.

Elizabeth Campbell in her multiple roles, showed us why she remains one of Australia's pre-eminent oratorio singers. Her big mezzo voice was a model of clarity, making singing in English seem so easy. She was the only singer I could consistently understand, without ever needing the surtitles. Yes, she may have come across a bit less in character at times, but, with her roles I was not going to complain when every word was so clear.

David Corcoran sang with his usual ringy tenor voice. He seemed more confident than I have heard him before, but at the same time, I really do not think English is a good language for him. To my ear, he is all ping, with not enough body to his voice. This could be just me, but I like a fuller tenor voice than his. However, he was impressive as the captain of the ship that Philomele falls for, causing Tereus fits of jealousy.

Also, Taryn Fiebig sang a suitably radiant (if surprisingly vindictive) Aphrodite. Much of the blame for what happened gets sheeted home to her, yet, at best, she could only be said to be encouraging others to act out on their desires, rather than making those desires happen.

The music you ask? Well, I would probably describe it as fitting into a Britten-ish sound world. So, mostly tonal, with melody more likely to happen in snatches than full out arias. At the same time, there are exerptable solo moments of considerable beauty, and some quite powerful ensemble sections, making for a score that really demands multiple listenings to get a deeper appreciation for it. (Not to mention, the showstopping "Song of the Nightingale" at the end) It also reflects a keen ear for how to set words for voices, which considering the composer's long involvement with WA Opera, is not unsurprising.

The staging was initially annoying, till I adjusted to it. Having a series of platforms that roll around on stage to indicate different locations seems annoying at first, but it was made to work. You forgot it was just staging, and it became the locations, be they the palace at Athens, the boat, the beach or the palace in Thrace. It also enabled some quite difficult scenes of violence and outrageous behaviour to take place, without loss of believability, which was quite something.

Now, I have to say, for some, the moralising of some of the characters towards the end was annoying. For me, it was not, mainly because it fitted in with the whole Greek chorus thing that was happening. After all, ancient Greek theatre relied on the chorus to moralise, and ask the hard questions. Having said that it did go on for quite some time, to drum the point home, that we must ask questions, and we must never be afraid to speak out, lest we too lose the ability to do so.

But ultimately, the ending, with the gloriously over the top vocalise sung by Emma as the nightingale of the title was a fitting ending. It was an indication that we all had to find the way to say what we had no words for, to express the inexpressible. After all, what else is opera for?

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